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Incredibly, Gerrymandering Is Still Defeating Democracy In 21st Century America

Southern man, when will you pay them back?

I heard screamin' and bullwhips cracking

Media prefers to cover this because people would rather read about crackpots than about saving democracy-- drawing by Nancy Ohanian

On Thursday, the Cook Political Report did one of their regular reassessments of their congressional district prognostications. It didn’t go well for crooked Inland Empire lifer Ken Calvert or for Colorado crackpot Lauren Boebert. Both their districts moved from the “Lean Republican” column to the “Toss Up” column, despite both districts being “safely” red. Calvert’s district has an R+3 PVI and an R+7 partisan lean and Boebert’s has an R+7 PVI and a humongous R+15 partisan lean. Trump won both districts— Calvert’s by just over a point, but Boebert’s by over 8 points.

At the same time, Cook moved freshman Democrat Greg Landsman (Cincinnati) from the “Toss Up” column to the “Lean Democrat” column. It looks like a pretty safe Democratic seat to me so it probably should have been in “Lean Dem” all along. Biden won the district by eight and a half points and the PVI is D+2. The partisan lean is D+3.

And Cook’s Dave Wasserman wasn’t the only one busy trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing. Rhodes Cook from Sabato had a fascinating look back at the vast differences in congressional district turnout, something that has plagued Democrats for decades. Although congressional districts have roughly the same populations, in 2022 “turnout ranged from a low of barely 90,000 in the New York 15th (represented by Democrat Ritchie Torres) to a high of nearly 390,000 in the Michigan 1st (represented by Republican Jack Bergman). That is a difference of nearly 300,000 votes from high to low. Nationally, the average turnout in 2022 was about 250,000 voters per district.” Since both incumbents are subpar, that doesn’t play into the equation.

Cook wrote that “For the most part, the results confirmed the longstanding rule of thumb that Republicans tend to do better than the Democrats in high-turnout districts, many of them suburban and fairly affluent in nature, while Democrats tend to dominate in districts with low turnouts, often territory that is poorer, urban, and features a significant minority population. A caveat, though: Democrats have been steadily gaining ground in recent years in the suburbs as Republicans shed voters with their lurch to the right on cultural issues, from abortion to gun access. Of the 91 districts where there was a high turnout in 2022 (measured here as more than 300,000 votes), 59 elected Republicans to the House. In contrast, of the 98 low-turnout districts (where the number of ballots cast fell below 200,000), 66 sent Democrats to Congress. Put another way, nearly two thirds of the high-turnout districts last fall sent Republicans to the House, and slightly more than two thirds of the low-turnout districts elected Democrats.”

At first glance, it would appear that the partisan difference between high and low turnout districts would give the GOP a pronounced advantage in state-level races for offices such as president, governor, and U.S. Senate. But that is often not the case. Low turnout districts frequently produce large pluralities for the Democrats that rival in size the pluralities for the winners in more competitive higher turnout districts. Case in point: the average margin of victory for the victorious candidate in the 25 highest-turnout districts in 2022 was 22 percentage points; the average winning margin in the 25 lowest-turnout districts was 34 points.
In addition, Democrats over the years have been making steady inroads in high-turnout metro districts from Philadelphia to Phoenix, as well as holding firm in liberal bastions such as Boulder, CO, Madison, WI, and Seattle, WA, where voters indeed turn out to vote.
Democratic representatives from vote-rich constituencies in 2022 included Debbie Dingell, who represents Ann Arbor and parts of metro Detroit, Elissa Slotkin, who has a marginal Lansing-area seat, Joe Neguse from Boulder, and Pramila Jayapal of Seattle. Turnout in all of these elections last year exceeded 338,000 votes.

Of the 25 congressional districts with the fewest number of House ballots cast in 2022, all were carried comfortably by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, and all but two were won by House Democrats in 2022. Most of the lowest-turnout House districts last year were clustered in Southern California and the New York City area, both urban-oriented parts of the country with large minority populations. The latter includes the home bases of the new Democratic House Minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, as well as the chamber's most famous progressive, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Meanwhile, new House Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar represents one of the lowest-turnout districts on the “Left Coast.”

Where people voted
The highest-turnout states in 2022 lay across the Frost Belt, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest. In Michigan, 11 of the state’s 13 districts registered congressional vote totals in excess of 300,000; in Pennsylvania, it was 11 of 17; in Wisconsin, 6 of 8; in Minnesota, 5 of 8; in Colorado, 4 of 8; in Oregon, 5 of 6; and in Washington, 6 of 10. All of these states featured at least a statewide race for governor or Senate, and in many cases in 2022, both high-profile offices were on the ballot together. The presence of these contests no doubt helped to swell the vote in House races. So too did the basic demographics of these states, fairly affluent and well-educated, generally a combination that produces high voter turnout.
And where they didn’t
As for the other end of the turnout spectrum, the lowest turnout districts last fall were found in large numbers across the Sun Belt, from the Deep South west to California, plus a cluster of states in the Northeast anchored by New York and New Jersey. In these separate swaths of America, there was a large representation of districts where less than 200,000 votes were cast in 2022. Populations in many of these Sun Belt states tended to be racially diverse and lacked a tradition of high turnouts; as of 2019, California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Hawaii had populations that were majority minority, or less than 50% non-Hispanic white. (Maryland was the only other state in the country with similar status.) Remember, too, that House districts are apportioned by total population that does not take into account eligibility to vote (such as whether a person is a citizen). So districts that have a lot of newer immigrants/people who are not citizens may naturally produce a lower total of votes.
Ground zero for low turnout last year was in the heart of the South. The number of ballots tallied fell below 200,000 in 6 of the 9 districts in Tennessee, 6 of 7 in Alabama, and all 4 districts in Mississippi. Nearly half of the districts in a number of populous states also had turnouts that scraped the bottom of the list. In California, 25 of 52 districts had sub-200,000 vote turnouts. In Texas, it was 18 of 38; in New York, 10 of 26; and in New Jersey, 5 of the state’s 12 districts. California and New York both had gubernatorial and Senate races, but other than the unexpectedly competitive governor’s race in the Empire State involving the newly elevated Democrat, Kathy Hochul (who replaced Andrew Cuomo in 2021), the high-profile contests apparently did little to spur voter turnout in congressional elections.

2024: Shades of 2020?
While a handful of states— such as Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, and perhaps others— may have new congressional district lines next year, the vast majority of states will have the exact same lines as they did in 2024. The main difference will be in the volume of voters. Turnout for presidential elections is much higher than for midterms. In 2022, for instance, there was not a single district where the number of ballots cast exceeded 400,000. In 2020, there were 100 such districts, which represented nearly one out of every four nationally. The 400,000-vote plus districts were found in 30 states and split about evenly in partisan terms, with 52 electing Republicans to the House and 48 selecting Democrats.
Altogether, there were about 152.6 million votes cast for the House of Representatives in 2020, fully 40% more than in 2022. Presidential elections tend to attract more marginal voters who are drawn to the polls every four years only by the race for president. These voters can be unpredictable but often skew Democratic, helping the party to win the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.
On the other hand, Republicans dominate most of the state legislatures nowadays and in many, congressional district lines have been crafted [gerrymandered] favorably to the GOP. In addition, since 2020 some Republican governors and legislatures— including those in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas— have scaled back early and absentee balloting, a method of voting that Democrats capitalized on in the pandemic-influenced election three years ago. Democrats have denounced the changes since then as “voter suppression.” Republicans hail them as providing “election integrity.”

And speaking of gerrymandering… and Alabama… Kevin McCarthy and Tommy Tuberville have been calling state legislators and telling them to ignore the Supreme Court’s order to ungerrymander the state. The new map the legislature came up with isn’t as racist— but it’s still plenty racist. Jane Timm reported that “A federal court ordered the state to redraw its congressional map last year to include two districts where Black voters make up voting-age majorities, “or something quite close to it.” The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling this year, prompting the Legislature to call a special session to redraw the map this week.”

Today [the deadline], the Republican legislature passed a map with just one majority-Black seat, continuing to dilute the Black vote despite the Supreme Court ruling— a compromise between a House map that included a second district that is 42% Black and a Senate map included a 38% Black district. (40% Black.) It would not give Black voters a real shot at winning a congressional seat. State Rep. Juandalynn Givan, a Democrat from Birmingham, expressed shock that Republicans “would blatantly flip off the United States Supreme Court” with the map in debate this week.

Marina Jenkins, the executive director of the National Redistricting Foundation— one of the groups that supported some of the plaintiffs in the suit, Allen v. Milligan— slammed the maps in a statement.
“Alabama Republicans are intentionally drawing political retention maps at the expense of Black Alabamians— in defiance of the Supreme Court and the Alabama district court. It is a continuation of the state’s long, sordid history of disenfranchising Black voters,” she said, promising to challenge the maps in court.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Deuel Ross, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said the plaintiffs were disappointed in Alabama's responses to the court orders.
"This is exactly why the Voting Rights Act was first created— this sort of stubbornness of states," he said in an interview. "Even when a court says that they're violating federal law or the Constitution, they continue to fail to do the right thing. It's troubling, but it's part of a troubling history that has existed in America and Alabama for a long time."

Judd Legum reported that “The Alabama legislature has created a district that would have comfortably supported Trump over Biden in 2020 and now claims it complies with the court order. ‘This map and the process that led up to it are as deceitful as they are shameful,’ the National Redistricting Foundation, an anti-gerrymandering group, said of the new map. ‘This follows a pattern we have seen throughout history when it comes to redistricting in Alabama, where a predominately white and Republican legislature has never done the right thing on its own, but rather has had to be forced to do so by a court.’… Alabama's leaders will have to convince the district court that the new map complies with the district court's order. But the district court just had its initial decision, which called for the creation of a second majority Black district, affirmed by the Supreme Court. So it would not be surprising for the district court to reject the legislature's new map and impose its own map that complies with the law.”

The three-judge district court tentatively scheduled an Aug. 14 hearing to consider challenges to the map.


Jesse Salisbury
Jesse Salisbury
Jul 22, 2023

great piece Howie. information is the currency of a strong democracy and empowers us to fight against the propaganda .


Jul 21, 2023

it is NOT incredible. it is typically american. try to goon elections in every possible way you can (because the other side always lets you) in order to "win".

both sides do it. both sides have their own priorities in pursuing it. only one side never ever does jack shit about any of it.

that's the side y'all vote for. so... there's that.

in the absence of any kind of resistance, usually evil prevails. and then you find yourself in a shithole.

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